Plastic is the new paper

Adieu print? On Monday, on the very same day that Amazon revealed its underwhelming Kindle 2, Plastic Logic, a UK-US technology start-up that is pioneering a portable plastic electronic screen, announced a series of deals with publishing companies that will, I suspect, be seen one day as the death knell of print magazines and newspapers.

While Amazon want to replace the physical book with their iPod sized Kindle, Plastic Logic have developed a physically larger and technologically more ambitious 8 ½ by 11 inch plastic screen – a bendable and fully portable e-reader that, according to Joe Eschbach, the company’s marketing VP, is lighter, more robust and cheaper to produce than a conventional glass electronic screen.

Eschbach rejected the idea, however, that Plastic Logic is a direct competitor to Amazon’s glass screened Kindle. “It’s a different type of product,” he told me, when we spoke on the telephone. Amazon are going after the reader of what he called “recreational books” like paperback novels, Eschbach explained, while Plastic Logic’s target is what he claims to be the ten times larger market of “business readers” of newspapers, magazines, PDF documents and even emails.

While Plastic Logic demonstrated a prototype at this week’s O’Reilly Tools of Change Publishing Conference (TOC) in New York City, their e-reader device won’t have what Eschbach described as “broad commercial availability” until 2010.  Last week’s announcements from Plastic Logic were, therefore, all about alliances or distribution deals with new media technology companies such as Zinio and Adobe, and newspaper publishers like the Financial Times, New York Times and USA Today.

As the insurrectionary Web 2.0 age fizzles out in a damp climax of superfluous social networking widgets, Plastic Logic might well be Silicon Valley’s new new thing. This plastic revolution-from-above represents an audacious attempt to finally kill off the already sickly print newspaper and magazine. Backed by both British and American venture capital, Plastic Logic, which owns over a hundred patents on its technology, employs three hundred people and is headed by ex Hewlett-Packard executive Richard Archuleta. With their R&D facility in Cambridge UK, their manufacturing center in Dresden, Germany and their sales and marketing HQ in Mountain View, California, the company’s unconventional organization reflects the audacity of its revolutionary plastic e-reader.

I suspect that Archuleta’s greatest challenge will be how to most effectively monetize his technology. With only 300 full-time staff spread across three countries and two continents, Plastic Logic might not quite have the human bandwidth to be simultaneously a next-generation publishing platform, a mass producer of branded hardware and a technology outsourcer. But Joe Eschbach is so confident about the commercial viability of Plastic Logic technology that he promises the product will “sell itself”. The 2010 launch of a Plastic Logic branded e-reader, he told me, will result in the company getting “big quick” with “hundreds of thousands or millions of sales” of an Internet enabled device he predicted would cost somewhere between $300 and $800. I hope Eschbach is right. Silicon Valley desperately needs a new new thing. Plastic may indeed be the new paper. By this time next year, you might even be reading this column on Plastic Logic rather than on glass or print.